international polar year not done yet

The fourth International Polar Year ran, officially, from March 2007 to March 2009. For Bob Van Dijken, however, it started in 2006 - and it's still going on.

By Claire Eamer

The fourth International Polar Year ran, officially, from March 2007 to March 2009. For Bob Van Dijken, however, it started in 2006 – and it’s still going on.

In February 2006, Van Dijken was hired to staff the Yukon Regional International Polar Year co-ordinating office, based with the Council of Yukon First Nations in Whitehorse. It’s one of four such offices in Northern Canada. The others are located in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavik (northern Quebec).

When Van Dijken started work, researchers were already writing proposals and developing teams for a massive international research effort involving both poles and, eventually, 63 countries. And northerners. For the first time in the 130-year history of the polar years, the people who live in the polar regions were participants, not just objects of study.

Van Dijken’s job was to help make that participation work. There wasn’t much of a job description at the beginning, he says. “I looked at it as somewhat of a dating service between researchers and communities.”

Over the past few years, Van Dijken has spent a lot of time explaining Yukon communities to researchers, and researchers to communities. He has urged the researchers to hire and train community members whenever possible, to make use of community resources, and to report back information to the communities in a way that is understandable and useful. And he has helped communities take advantage of the unusual opportunity the polar year offered.

“For me, the biggest prize is to see projects like the Old Crow project, where they decided they wanted to take charge,” he says.

The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow leapt into the polar year with both feet and plenty of enthusiasm. Early on, the community decided not to wait for the researchers, but to take the initiative and become full partners in developing a research project that tackled questions it wanted answered.

Van Dijken says the community invited researchers to spend a weekend in Old Crow thrashing out the broad outline of a project. The community and researchers refined the weekend’s work and came up with a study called Yeendoo Nanh Nakhweenjit K’atr’ahanahtyaa: Environmental change and traditional use of the Old Crow Flats in Northern Canada – one of the few studies led by a Northern aboriginal community.

The co-operation didn’t end once the project started. Once a year, all the researchers involved returned to Old Crow to spend a weekend reporting back to the community, checking to make sure they were fulfilling the community’s goals, and making plans for the next stage of work. They used local people and resources, took part in local events, and built lasting relationships.

Van Dijken says the Old Crow project is part of a new paradigm for northern research, where northerners and researchers act as partners. He calls it “science at the community scale.” And Old Crow wasn’t the only community to take the new approach. In Dawson, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation developed a research project called “Traditional Knowledge and Climate Change in Tr’ondek Hwech’in Traditional Territory.” In other parts of the North, other communities were also active participants in the polar year.

It’s a different way of doing things, Van Dijken says. Traditional science is often “science from above,” where researchers use satellites and automated monitoring systems to study the North from a distance, rarely setting foot on northern ground. Community-based science is all about having your feet on the ground and walking among the people who live there, as well as valuing and incorporating their knowledge. It can be cheaper, Van Dijken says, and more useful for communities.

“How do we nurture that?” he asks.

Van Dijken might get the chance to answer his own question. The polar year is officially over, but the Yukon co-ordinating office is still operating, helping both communities and researchers. It will take years, perhaps even decades, to analyze and interpret and report on all the data collected over two years of intense activity, but plans are underway now to discuss the next steps.

In April 2012, representatives of communities, governments, non-government organizations, and the research community – from all around the world – will meet in Montreal to review what has been learned from the polar year and what comes next. Van Dijken is already involved in preparations for the conference, called From Knowledge to Action.

And it’s possible that his office will continue to build bridges between researchers and the Yukon communities beyond 2012. With the polar year fading into the background, the Yukon co-ordinating office is shifting gears. The transition is still being worked out, but in a year or so it might become a northern science co-ordinating office under the auspices of the Canadian Polar Commission, with a mandate to nurture community-researcher relationships like those developed during the polar year.

This is all very important and serious stuff, but not all Van Dijken’s memories of the polar year are quite that weighty. He has fond memories of another project that had nothing directly to do with research – the official unveiling of Canada’s polar year stamp in 2007. It took place in Whitehorse at that year’s opening banquet for the Yukon Quest sled dog race, and each musher in the race carried envelopes with the stamps all the way to Fairbanks.

“Things like that were off the beaten track,” Van Dijken says. They introduced the polar year, and scientific research, to a whole new audience. And they were fun.

For more information about the International Polar Year and the Yukon co-ordinating office, contact Bob Van Dijken at or (867) 393-9237.

This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at

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